Apprenticeships to the rescue of the High Street

Apprenticeships could help save the country’s “struggling” high streets, according to the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills select committee.

Its report on the retail sector called on employers to be “more ambitious about skills training” with the aim of increasing the number of apprentices at level three and above.

The report said the skills of shop workers needed to be boosted to ensure positive in-store customer experiences in the face of growing competition from, among others, “mail order, supermarkets, shopping centres, megastores, out of town retail parks”.

The report said: “Apprenticeships are being used more frequently in the retail sector. They allow retail staff, who often leave school with few qualifications, to gain transferable, interpersonal skills.

“However, retailing is becoming a much more sophisticated industry, and those who work in the sector need to be more comprehensively trained. We support the work that employers do in training their workforce.

“The retail sector should be more ambitious about skills training, encouraging more staff to be trained at level three and above.

“Furthermore, given the importance of tourism to the United Kingdom, consideration should be given to developing language skills to enhance the international consumers’ retail experience.”

According to the report, retail is one of the largest users of apprenticeships, with 108,300 starts in the 2011/12 academic year, up more than 75 per cent on 2009/10. It also said around a tenth of the UK workforce (around three million people) is employed in the retail sector, making it the largest private sector employer.

Committee chair Adrian Bailey: “The skills needed by those working in the retail sector are changing rapidly as shoppers operate in an increasingly digital world and shopping becomes an increasingly multi-channel experience.

“The government must outline the action it will take to tackle any skills shortages and the sector itself must be more ambitious in the level of training it offers to its staff.”

The committee’s main finding was that the current system of business rates was not fit for purpose and therefore in need of fundamentally reform. It calls for a wholesale review that goes beyond the administration of business rates to examine whether retail taxes should be based on sales rather than the rateable value of a property; whether retail needs its own system of business taxation; and how frequently revaluations should take place.

“British retail is a global success story,” said Mr Bailey.

“Employing around three million people, it is the largest private sector employer in the UK.

“But its traditional home — the High Street — is struggling under a system of business rates that comprises one of the highest forms of local property tax in the European Union.”